The influences of Harper Lee and Anne Tyler are strongly present in this winning, if borderline-sentimental, second novel by the author of the wistful Sam’s Crossing (1993). “I spent a large part of my childhood on the other side of doors or just around corners,” Jeru Lamb confesses—while narrating in retrospect the story of his afflicted family’s attempts to heal itself in the aftermath of a loss that coincided with the assassination of a beloved President (JFK) and the dying spasms of segregation in their complacent South Carolina hometown (Greenville). The shadow cast over them was the death of Jeru’s younger brother Mitchell, when a dog the boys had always teased broke loose and savagely mauled Mitchell—a fate that guilt-ridden Jeru narrowly escaped. The Lambs (a beautifully chosen name) cope with their loss in various ways dictated by their differing natures. Jeru’s mother Muriel resorts to Christian Science and becomes pregnant again—to the despair of her husband Warren, who has quit his job and works obsessively at a book whose subject he won’t reveal. And Jeru—an engaging ten-year-old compound of naãvetÇ and precocious insight—tiptoes around the edges of his family’s other secrets, slowly maturing into the realization that other people’s (seemingly remote) lives are every bit as sorrowful and fascinating as his own. Hays filters through Jeru’s increasingly sophisticated consciousness a moving picture of small-town racial relations in 1963, as well as fully rounded characterizations of even initially marginal figures like Jeru’s resourceful Aunt Louise and Uncle Clem, and the preternaturally knowing Norma Jones, a schoolmate who holds the key to all he doesn’t know about his family. Not a totally original story (there’s a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird in it), but a mighty appealing one. Oprah will want to check out Tommy Hays.